The Power of the Prosecutor: A Personal Account

Have you ever watched an episode of “Law & Order”? The creators do an amazing job of dramatizing the court process. The characters playing the prosecutors are always eloquent and passionate as they go toe-to-toe with an indignant defense attorney who is quick to counter every point. We see this version of the trial process all the time in mainstream media. The real life, everyday version is much different. My real-life experience was much different.

Like millions of others in this country, my experience didn’t involve expensive defense lawyers, just overworked and underpaid public defenders. There were no passionate arguments from the prosecutors because over 90 percent of all cases end in a plea agreement, as mine did. I was convicted in 2015 for two felonies and a few subsequent misdemeanors. My felonies were fraud-based charges for cashing checks that weren’t mine. My misdemeanors included things like attempted retail theft, trespassing, and a couple other minor things.

I did not walk into that courtroom a hardened criminal, and I had never been to jail. My real crime was addiction. Like many others, I was a heroin addict and committed these low-level crimes to support my daily use. My addiction, as that of many women, spurred from serious trauma, including sexual and domestic violence.

The agreement between my public defender and the prosecutor was to be a one- to three-year sentence. My time before the judge came, and the prosecutor informed him that we did not have an agreement: They were asking for a two- to six-year sentence. The emotions I felt in that chair, shackled by the waist and ankles, are difficult to put into words. I was at the complete mercy of that prosecutor. Luckily for me, the judge thought the plea agreement was unreasonable. My final plea: 14 months to four years.

The word “agreement” makes it sound like you agree to a plea deal, but that is not exactly the case. While I was informed I had the right to a trial, I was strongly dissuaded from exercising that right. While I could have waited to bring my case before a judge and jury, I would have faced the maximum sentence available, which would have been 10 years in prison. In my case, the plea deal was presented as my only hope of seeing my children, getting treatment for my addiction, and moving forward. This is the weight of the prosecutors’ power that I experienced first-hand — the leveraging of my life, my children, and loved ones against me.

The prosecutor is the most powerful person in the world of anyone facing criminal proceedings. They have the power to impose a wide array of sentences on individuals facing conviction, and those sentences are often just the start of a life-long navigation of collateral consequences, not just for the person who is convicted, but for anyone connected to them.

I have served my sentence and become a responsible, tax-paying, and positive member of my community. I returned to college to pursue a degree in behavioral science. I volunteer with a transitional housing program, and I have become an advocate for criminal justice reform. I am an active mom and partner.

But regardless of any achievement or level of recognition I acquire, I am a convicted felon. When I apply for jobs, I am flagged as a “high-risk” employee due to my theft convictions and have had difficulty finding even minimum-wage employment. When my own children have school field trips, I am barred from being a chaperone.

Those are just a couple examples of the long-lasting collateral damage caused by incarceration, and things could have gone differently. The prosecutor in charge of my case could have used a diversion option, like treatment court, or a different form of supervision that would have allowed me to address my addiction, options which would have minimized the impacts I still feel on my life today. I have since been told my sentence was extreme and that the prosecutor could have easily diverted me to a treatment court program or community supervision to address the underlying reasons for my addiction and subsequent crimes.

Around the country, voters are beginning to realize that the old “tough on crime” model does not promote safer or healthier communities. My own life has proven this. Prison should not be the automatic answer. The community is not “safer” today because I went to jail. I’m successful today because of support, treatment, and opportunity — none of which I found in jail.           

Prosecutors have immense power and use that power, with little public accountability, to make choices that change the lives of real people, like me. This is why it is so important for voters to know who their local prosecutor is and where they stand on criminal justice reform issues. The ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign is putting a focus on prosecutors. You have the power to change our culture of mass incarceration by electing prosecutors that care more about people than conviction rates.

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The Topped Scal...

Prosecutors worry about win and lose records. They want the win over actual justice. And if you piss them off by challenging them their ego will take over and try to crush you rather than keeping to reasonable and rational thoughts.

Anonymous

Recall recall recall read about the creep David Schuts lakeveiw oregon he resigned. Because the people stood together to get his corrupt ass thrown out , he waited 11 months then they stuck ho. Ass back in Klamath falls ore where they got rid of him a few years prior for corruption and abuse of power this clown is a piece of human shit !

Anonymous

Seems like the prison sentence worked in your case. You stopped using heroin, got your kids back, and they aren't calling 911 because you've passed out either a needle stuck in your arm.

Anonymous

There is nothing to say that prison was what helped this writer to make the choices she did that helped her. USA prisons are not geared towards anything but punishment.

Anonymous

my son is facing a prosecutor at this time and she is known to not bend. They are doing the same thing. Saying he is culpable of 16 years but they will offer 6. The lawyer had said she would come down. But to me it seems unfair that she is the judge, jury and executioner.

Anonymous

Another victory conviction reward the corrupt. Prosecutor , those ass holes are not held accountable for any thing they do , they just all be thrown into prison with the same people who’s lives they destroyed ! A bunch of liars and creeps that abuse their power !

Jerry Cobb

I am convicted of about 40 felonies. Have received both fair and unfair sentences. I was a criminal due to drug addiction although I still committed criminal acts, I was never a violent offender. Prison, jails and courts both helped me and as well as seal my fate to be ostracized by the society we live in. Being blackballed to even simple jobs that anyone can do has left me in a darken society and as many times as I tried and failed, I don't blame anyone but myself for my predicament. All in all though I have met some real unfair seemingly evil prosecutors who would sell their own mother out to keep their job. Whether it is about power or its about someone who clearly thinks they will never or can do no wrong. And those before them are to be judged for their charges or by what a police report states, or better yet what your past says. Heartless may be their ruler yet I know that not all are the same and just as I have grown over the years so has many who have made a profession out of the court system. The system though it is the only one we have does provide a well to do living for those who benefit by being the good guys and when you're able to earn a decent living there really is no need to be a criminal. Prison guards I have met might be sleeping on my bunk if they didn't have their job. Not all but some. The court room is nothing more then a mere game for those who rely on statistics and convictions to show their doing a great job. Plea bargain is quite simple for an overburdened overworked courthouse. And it is quite simple offering deals of 5 years or less or take it to trial and get double. Does not take much education to deal those hands.
In 1980 there were maybe 3 to 5 prosecutors in a lot of the courthouses in Connecticut as well as only 4500 men and women incarcerated. Then it exploded to over 20 thousand men and women incarcerated in Connecticut with courtrooms provide 25 or more prosecutors in some Connecticut courthouses. Business boomed during the crack epidemic and everyone was making money. Police, courthouses and lawyers. The hypocritical drug epidemic exploded with our own government and the CIA moving drugs into this country. There has been so much more behind the scenes of those who run the social circle and our society. To continue mass incarceration while crime is down is just the same as being a criminal, while all those resources surge on destroying people instead of fixing them. If reform included hiring those convicted felons. Or reform of the system showed benefits to those who are trying to renew their lives. This would go a long way to break the cycle of the broken or the broken family. Instead of those ridiculous ideas to tell those coming out of prison to just go straight with no where to turn, or no help available. More could be done and more changes are needed to reform those who need to reform as well as a system that needs to be reformed.

Anonymous

It was an honor hearing your story today at the Woodstock Union High School Social Justice workshop and I just read your article. You're very brave, and I wish you all the best in all your future work. I hope to create some kind of community weekly gathering where folks can come together, particularly self-identifying women and girls, and have these kinds of conversations about domestic abuse and punishment continuums.

Nicola Tebble. ...

Dr Leary, Sir or Madam. Why don’t you use your real name? Most substance use addictions are a persons way of attempting to self medicate a perhaps undiagnosed mental health condition, or in this woman’s case trauma from abuse, she does not need your verbal abuse here as well. Why don’t you find another hobby other than debasing other people? You have been posting derogatory comments on this site for a long time here.

Thiago Haberli

I have read your article; it is very informative and helpful for me. I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. Thanks for posting it.
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